Note: To commemorate the 70th birthday of John Lennon, we’re revisiting this single from early in his post-Beatles career. One of the things I find most fascinating about the man was how he was able to impart blunt, timeless wisdom about our lives while struggling to make sense of his. “Karma” was one of those ‘message’ songs that he so good at articulating. While we all shine on, Lennon’s star still burns much brighter than most thirty years after his death…
Mention John Lennon’s solo output and his 1971 hit “Imagine” becomes an integral part of the conversation…indeed, it often is the conversation. But recently, I came across the video for “Instant Karma!” (below) and was reminded what a great little ditty that is, too. That it’s a terrific tune is all the more remarkable given the slapdash way it was put together.
“Instant” lived up to its name; Lennon famously remarked that he “wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we’re putting it out for dinner.” Actually, it was released ten days later on February 6, 1970, a veritable wind sprint even back then.
Lennon assembled his Plastic Ono Band for the project, the ever-changing group made up of whoever he could pull together at the time. For this flash project, he called in Billy Preston on grand piano, Klaus Voorman on bass guitar and backing vocals, Alan White on drums, George Harrison on electric guitar and backing vocals, Yoko Ono on backing vocals and Beatles assistant Mal Evans on chimes and handclaps. Lennon himself handled the lead vocals, acoustic guitar and electric piano.
With all that instrumentation, you’d think this was a leftover track from Abbey Road, but the ironic beauty of this song is that it’s not very Beatle-esque at all. The guitars are way back in the mix, and the insistent piano chords along with White’s drums and the handclaps are out in front, forming a powerful, head-nodding, body-swaying rhythm. Lennon’s lead vocals are most at front, though, his finger pointing lyrics made all the more poignant by the booming, reverberating mike set against the stark, almost demo-like soundscape. As was usually the case when Lennon was feeling it in the songwriting department, the words are philosophical but flow out so naturally, you can almost finish his lines as he sings:
Instant karma’s gonna get you
Gonna look you right in the face
Better get yourself together darlin’
Join the human race
How in the world you gonna see
Laughing at fools like me
Who in the hell you think you are
Well, right you are
And how many other pop songs do you know of have drum fills inserted in the brief pauses between lines of lyrics? It was as if Lennon wanted to stick some exclamation points at random points. There really wasn’t a song that sounded anything like it before, and even today, there’s a freshness to it that is a product of the no-nonsense production (provided by that Wall of Sound guy Phil Spector, of all people), the strong message and Lennon’s own sincerely impassioned rendering.
The confrontational, stripped down approach that defines “Instant Karma!” pointed the way for Lennon’s masterpiece Plastic Ono Band album later that year, and would occasionally reoccur for the rest of his career. Even the posthumous singlefollows much of the same sonic template established in this early solo hit.
The genius of John Lennon didn’t become realized overnight, but in the case of “Instant Karma!”, it did happen during the day. One, single day in January, 1970.
“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.